University of Houston researchers working on anti-fentanyl vaccine

The war on drugs is turning into the war on fentanyl. Researchers at The University of Houston believe they have the biggest weapon ever to fight against it — in the form of a vaccine.

Dr. Colin Haile hopes that he and his team have come up with a game changer at the University of Houston as they gear up to take on the crisis of the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

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"The treatments that we have right now are clearly not working and we need a different strategy to address this, and we think this anti-fentanyl vaccine will do that," says Dr. Haile.

There's a frantic need for a new tool to save lives. More than 71,000 people died from fentanyl overdoses in 2021. The staggering number continues to climb. Fentanyl is the most dangerous drug to ever hit the U.S. in its history. While the Drug Enforcement Administration says fentanyl has become the drug of choice on the streets. It only takes one pill, many times unknowingly laced with fentanyl, to take a life.

A heartbroken mom knows how devastating that can be. Her 14-year-old son died at their home in Cypress, after buying fake oxycodone.

"I miss him so much! I miss his hugs, I miss touching his face," she exclaims.

Pain that could be averted if at-risk teens got a preventive measure like this vaccine.

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Dr. Haile says it is proving to be effective in animal studies using tried and true ingredients.

"One part of the vaccine is already in two vaccines on the market already and have been proven safe and effective. Another part of our vaccine has already been in humans, been in multiple clinical trials and has also been shown to be safe and effective," says Dr. Haile.

The vaccine has been created to cut off fentanyl's pleasure pathway to the brain, eliminating the drug's high.

"Unlike other vaccines that induce the body to produce antibodies against pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria, our vaccine produces antibodies against the chemical and that chemical is fentanyl. So, in a vaccinated individual because they consume fentanyl, those antibodies will bind to the drug and prevent it from getting into the brain," says Dr. Haile.

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Some patients accidentally become addicted to fentanyl when taking it for pain, so the idea is that anyone with an opioid disorder will get the vaccine to detox.

"Then in addition to their maintenance therapy, such as buprenorphine, methadone, or naltrexone, they will also get the vaccine. Unfortunately, in this population, they relapse at very high rates 80 to 90%," says Dr. Haile. However, Dr. Haile hopes the anti-fentanyl vaccine will shatter those numbers.

The most vocal about the serious problem are mothers who've lost children to fentanyl. Now many parents are reaching out to Dr. Haile for their at-risk children, hoping to sign them up for human clinical trials.

"Parents that are absolutely terrified that their children are going to inadvertently be exposed to fentanyl because we found fentanyl in cocaine, methamphetamine, in counterfeit anti-anxiety, ADHD medications as well," says Dr. Haile.

He also hopes it would help protect first responders who deal with the dangers every day. Dr. Haile also hopes the FDA will quickly approve the anti-fentanyl vaccine, but it still requires years of clinical trials and could be available in about three years. They expect very few side effects.  

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